It would appear that after four straight years of BCS appearances, the University of Oregon football team will be left on the outside looking in. Most likely the team will be headed to the Alamo Bowl, something that most pundits and fans would not have predicted before the season began. Yet here they are.
There is nothing wrong with a 10-2 season; for many teams that would be considered a wildly successful season, and even a few years ago the Ducks would have regarded it as one of the better years in Oregon football.
Having played for a National Championship, the Rose Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl, anything less than a BCS bid is regarded as a failure. Yet perhaps that is exactly what the program needs: A wake up call.
Without rehashing the unfortunate quotes regarding the lack of enthusiasm for a return to the Rose Bowl, it appeared that Oregon had lost some of its drive, some of that aggressive hunger for greatness that propelled them to such lofty heights. It appeared that Oregon had become complacent and a little spoiled by success.
The Arizona game should have been the necessary slap across the face to remind the team what desire looks like. Certainly Oregon seemed to have regained some of that fire during the Oregon State game, but they certainly didn’t play a complete game. At times they were still sloppy and distracted, and were quite fortunate to come out with a win. So how much have they really learned?
Which Oregon team will show up for the Alamo Bowl? The team that was throttling opponents with hunger, decisiveness and willpower? Or the team that couldn’t get out of its own way in the desert? And how will this team look next year, with some key veterans graduated or declaring for the draft?
This is also a crucial period for Mark Helfrich. His admission to misjudging his team’s demeanor in the week leading up to the Arizona debacle was worrisome. The ability to sense a group’s psychological state is obviously a crucial aspect to coaching, and while his candor was refreshingly honest, it was also troubling.
Yet, we have been here before. During Chip Kelly’s first season there was also some question as to his coaching ability, certainly after the Boise State fiasco and the poor showing at the Rose Bowl, but no one thinks about that now. Winning makes all the questions go away, and Helfrich has the opportunity to show his mastery as a coach and silence any criticism.
A few years ago, Oregon was the perennial underdog, and as they began to achieve higher levels of success, their psychology shifted from the role of David to the role of Goliath, and those expectations changed everything within the program. The players changed. The fans changed. Not all of these changes were positive, either, which seemed to culminate in the statements belittling the Rose Bowl. Whether it was a reflection of their true feelings or not, the perception was (and still is) that players and fans have a sense of entitlement, that they are somehow owed success.
Perhaps now, with reduced expectations for this bowl season, the team will regain some of the hunger that had been a hallmark of Oregon football. Perhaps the team will return to to playing with more passion and more urgency. Perhaps they will regain that proverbial chip on the shoulder, that us-against-the-world mentality they used to have.
This season has not been a failure, but neither has it met the expectations heaped upon the shoulders of this team and its coaches. Maybe it isn’t fair to expect so much from a small-town school in a quiet part of the country. After all, this isn’t the SEC where football is an ingrained way of life – Oregon will never have the recruiting advantages that most upper-tier programs enjoy. Yet, no one involved with Oregon football has shied away from the pressure. This is a program that aspires to win national championships, and embraces the challenge. Championship teams cannot afford sentimentality or excuses, they must own up to their own flaws and mistakes and make the necessary corrections. Oregon needs to take a long hard look in the mirror.
This is the challenge now: Regain the ‘Win The Day’ mentality. Regain the hunger. Play as if every game is the national championship, even if it isn’t, even if the outcome is the Rose Bowl or the Alamo Bowl, or no bowl at all.
What is it going to be, Oregon?